This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.
“That’s Old Testament!” How often have we heard that sentence uttered by somebody involved in a theological discussion? Taken at face value, it is a very simple statement. The speaker is asserting his knowledge with respect to which of the two testaments a particular passage is coming from. Although the assertion could possibly be of interest to the discussion and you might want to take a moment to interrupt the speaker and compliment him on his awareness of the location of the passage, I doubt that the mere recognition of the location of the passage is what is intended by the assertion.
When Evangelicals say that something is “in the Old Testament”, what they are really saying is a rather detailed hidden argument about their desire to not have to bother with the verse that has been cited. The argument goes something like this:
Premise # 1: The God of the Old Testament was vindictive and full of wrath and vengeance.
Premise # 2: The God of the Old Testament did not have a fully developed doctrine of love.
Premise # 3: Jesus came in the New Testament to change the nature of the relationship of man with God from one based on wrath to one based on love.
Premise # 4: Things said by the God of the Old Testament do not necessarily reflect the true nature of God in the New Testament.
Conclusion # 1: We are free to ignore the law of God, recorded in the Pentateuch, because we are under grace, not law. (Also known as antinomianism.)
Conclusion # 2: We are free to ignore the historical record of the Old Testament as far as ascertaining any information about the character and nature of God because He has changed from vengeful and angry to merciful and loving.
Conclusion # 3: We are free to ignore all of the imprecatory Psalms because they were founded upon a doctrine of love that was incomplete, undeveloped, and simply wrong from the perspective of the New Testament. (See my essay “Selective Biblicism” for more information.)
Conclusion # 4: We are free to ignore all of the prophetic passages in the Old Testament if they are based upon this faulty view of God as primarily angry and full of wrath.
Hence, when the assertion is made that a passage is “in the Old Testament”, what is being said is, “I am free to ignore all of the logical and theological implications of that passage because it is based upon a doctrine of the nature and character of God that has changed. It is in the New Testament, where I find the God of love, that I choose to look for my doctrine of the nature and character of God. Therefore, any appeals to the Old Testament are going to be summarily rejected as irrelevant to the discussion at hand.”
The Immutability of God:
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 2, paragraph 1) says, “There is but one only living and true god, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory;”
In the final teaching/prophetic passage of the Old Testament (Malachi 3: 1-6) God says, “Behold, I am going to send My messenger and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; but who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears…then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely…For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.”
James 1: 17 says, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.”
Although not specifically mentioned in the ecumenical creeds, the doctrine of the immutability of God has been a part of doctrinal orthodoxy from the beginning of Christianity. Tertullian (~200 AD), in his work “Five Books Against Marcion” points out that the nature and character of God cannot change because He is outside of time. In order for something to change, it is required that some progression of time be taking place. Tertullian says, “God, moreover, is as independent of beginning and end as He is of time, which is the only arbiter and measurer of a beginning and end.” In Tertullian’s “Prescription Against Heretics” he asserts, “In all things, the truth of God is immutable.” The connection between the truth of God and the nature of God was clear and unbroken. In the minds of the Church fathers, it was not possible to assert that the truth of God was immutable but the nature of God was changeable. On the contrary, because Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life” it is necessarily the case that if the truth of God never changes, the nature of the triune God also never changes.
Augustine, in his work on the Trinity, states, “After the worlds were called into being, the Divine personality remained the same immutable and infinite self-knowledge, unaffected by anything in His handiwork.” In his commentary about Psalm 90, Augustine says, “But he very rightly does not say, ‘Thou wast from ages, and unto ages Thou shalt be’: but puts the verb in the present, intimating that the substance of God is altogether immutable.”
John Calvin, when writing about the Providence of God (Institutes, Book I, Chapter 17) states, (commenting on I Samuel 15:29 which says, “The Strength if Israel will not lie nor repent, for He is not a man that He should repent.”) “In these words His immutability is plainly asserted without figure.” From Tertullian to Augustine to Calvin, the doctrine of the immutability of God was so fundamental to orthodoxy that no one even dared to challenge it.
So strong was the belief in the immutability of God that it is difficult to find any organized group of heretics who were willing to take the position that God had changed His nature between the two testaments. It is fair to say that until the advent of the modern “That’s Old Testament” doctrine, there was no organized opposition to the orthodox doctrine of the immutability of God. However, there has always been a problem in the Church when dealing with the alleged differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Rather than taking the position that God has changed, that problem caused one man to argue that there were two different gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament. That man was Marcion and his heresy has come to be known as Marcionism.